It’s only too easy, as a Nutritional Therapist, to lose track of people you work with, so I was thrilled to hear from one of my first ever clients almost 15 years after we last met! Ramya Perera is so knowledgeable about food and its effects on health that I found myself learning from her and asked if I could visit and interview her.
Ramya (like my own father) comes from the beautiful island of Sri Lanka and is the eldest of 7 children. Her mother and grandparents were ayurvedic practitioners. Ayurveda is an ancient health care system that originated in India and is becoming increasingly popular in the UK.
Ramya grows a variety of vegetables and herbs in her garden, and it is completely natural for her to incorporate these into her cooking. Her food is both a medicine and a tonic, as well as a source of nourishment. Sri Lankan cooking is quite unique as it has been influenced by Indian, Malay, Portuguese and Dutch cuisine. Rice, rice flour and coconut are staple foods. Coconut oil is the main cooking oil and freshly made coconut milk is used in curries.
When I arrived at her house, she made a tasty, invigorating drink from grated mango, lemon, elderberry, ginger and water. She also added Kasa Kasa seeds, the Tamil name for poppy seeds. Used in cooking or baking, dried poppy seeds are a source of dietary fibre, B-complex vitamins, minerals and oleic acid (helpful for healthy lipid levels). Some species of the poppy plant are used in the production of opiates such as morphine, heroine and codeine. These little seeds, however, contain only tiny amounts of opium alkaloids with minimal effect on the nervous system.
Ramya enthralled me with tales of her childhood and the food she enjoyed. One of the highly nutritious meals the family ate for breakfast was a traditional Sri Lankan rice porridge called kenda. It consists of green leaves such as gotu kola (a traditional Asian healing herb), cooked rice and coconut powder boiled with water, then blended. Salt, garlic, ginger and jaggery (made from sugar cane or palm tree sap) are added for taste (see below for recipe).
Another traditional breakfast in Sri Lanka are stringhoppers, rice noodles formed into flat spirals. Or egghoppers, which are crispy, bowl-shaped pancakes made with rice flour – the egg is a bulls eye in the crusty pancake. Both stringhoppers and egghoppers are eaten with curries.
The children drank boiled milk mixed with ginger and black peppercorns to ward off coughs and colds. Goats milk was substituted for cows milk for anyone suffering with asthma.
After school, the children again enjoyed curry with rice, lentils and vegetables such as aubergine, okra, cassava and sweet potatoes. Their mother watched them carefully as they ate, reminding them to chew their food properly! They enjoyed fruits as dessert rather than biscuits or cakes.
I was interested to hear Ramya saying they drank cabbage water before meals, prepared from cabbage leaves, water, salt and coriander. This beverage was thought to be good for digestion. Warm cabbage leaves were also used as a wrap for sprains and bruises.
For dinner, it was rice and curry again, and a glass of hot milk before bed. I found myself envying the children, but pitying their poor mothers slaving away in the kitchen all day!
In the school holidays, Ramya and siblings left the capital of Colombo to visit their grandparents in a village in the countryside. When they arrived, their grandmother would always prepare a body cleanse for the children: coconut water from King Coconuts (indigenous to Sri Lanka) mixed with Sandalwood powder. Five cups of this concoction was enough to induce diarrhea. Following the “cleanse”, they ate very simply for a week to restore the digestive system. They were encouraged to eat bananas and honey to soothe and heal the lining of the gut, and meals would consist of soup, cabbage, vegetables and barley water.
Ramya went on to tell me about a few other natural remedies Sri Lankan women used at the time to treat common ailments. A gargle for sore throats consisted of water, salt and black pepper; garlic cloves were inserted into aching ears; turmeric, a potent anti-inflammatory, was added liberally to curries, drinks and pastries.
Using food as medicine appeals to me because it is simple and unlikely to have side-effects. As you have ultimate control over ingredients, dosage and taste, you decide what to add to your meal depending on how you feel and the environment you live in. It follows naturally that you take good care of that environment. This is an art passed down over generations that has been lost to the temptations of convenience ‘cuisine’ – where the aim is to produce food cheaply on a large scale.
Another hurdle is time. Even if you buy rather than grow your own food, preparing it is labour- and time-intensive. You have to be dedicated and persistent to cook your meals from scratch and avoid fast food. Can the ‘food as medicine’ movement be revived? People like Ramya prove that it just might.